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First-time property buyers look for affordable land beyond city limits, but find flood risk and prohibitive zoning regulations. By Megan Anderson.

Cheap land beyond city limits locked up by zoning

Prospective country landowners Crystal Dunn and Rowan Dinning.
Credit: Megan Anderson

Two hours out of Melbourne, designers Crystal Dunn and Rowan Dinning are eyeing a piece of land. Like many young professionals, the couple feel frustrated with high urban rents and a shoebox lifestyle. For them, buying in the city is financially unachievable – in part thanks to the speculative investment of baby boomers.

The land, for which they are tendering an offer, is a modest half-acre slab, 30 minutes out of Daylesford. Local attractions include a public toilet, a pub selling ice and potatoes, and a granary.

For Crystal and Rowan, the plot is more than just a tangle of scrub – it’s a future home and workspace. And at just $65,000, the price is right.

Crystal, who wants to develop sustainable practices for a new clothing label and design brand, says the block promises a freedom unavailable to her as an urban tenant.

“I feel completely trapped in a world where I don’t have any agency – where I’m in someone else’s space.”  With access to the national broadband network, Rowan could continue his work as designer and director for Inni industrial design studio. Crystal plans to use the block to experiment with material processes, such as harvesting natural fibres and composting pattern offcuts.

There’s just one catch: it might flood. And that means they may not be permitted to build on it.

One of the fastest-growing areas in Victoria, the North Central catchment area spans from Creswick to Swan Hill and the Murray River. The Avoca, Loddon and Campaspe rivers trickle through the region, fanning off the Murray-Darling Basin.

Like many blocks in the area, Crystal and Rowan’s plot comes with a Land Subject to Inundation Overlay (LSIO), devised by the local council, which means the area has been marked as affected by a one in 100 year flood. This also means that obtaining a planning permit – let alone a building permit – is not guaranteed.

But it is not impossible. Unlike Queensland, which is prone to intense and unpredictable flooding thanks to frequent cyclonic activity, the more predictable and narrow-range flooding that occurs in Victoria allows for slightly more leeway when it comes to developing on flood plains.

And it is this window on which the couple is relying.

“Due to the shape of the LSIO overlay, the lack of flood history in the area and the established houses on both sides, Rowan and I are gambling that our block may not flood, or maybe even that we could get the overlay reassessed,” says Crystal.

Earlier in the week, land surveyor Eddie Dinning – Rowan’s brother – discusses overlays with me in the couple’s Melbourne unit. Heavy rains have been predicted for the next week, and warnings have been issued for flash floods.

Dinning says flood overlays in Victoria are inconsistent and often “hugely inaccurate”. He shows me an aerial-view photograph of a one in 100 year flood where, he says, the outlines of the flooded area have been used to determine the flood overlay.

“They’ve said, ‘The creek runs here, let’s put 30 metres either side of it.’ And that’s the flood overlay. But it’s just incorrect.”

Mapping out flood zones like this, he says, excludes many factors. A certain area may fall under the flood level, but because it didn’t receive as much rain, it simply didn’t flood. Other areas may fall in the marked flood zone, but actually lie above the flood level.

“It just depends on the flood,” he says.

In Queensland, the 2010-11 floods sparked an enormous undertaking by the Queensland Reconstruction Authority to complete “the largest flood plain mapping exercise in the state’s history”, following a report by the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry.

If they have good data, then catchment management authorities can use it to plot accurate flood levels using statistical analysis, local data and computer modelling.

“But the trouble is Australia is so huge,” says Dinning, “so they don’t have that good quality data everywhere.”

While some areas are incorrectly zoned, others aren’t zoned at all. In Ballarat, more than 900 properties were shown in a 2002 report by the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority to lie in a flood path. The strategy demanded overlays be included in the Ballarat Planning Scheme by January 2004, but this never happened – despite tentative attempts made in April last year to place overlays on 178 properties.

Floods cost Victorians an average of $465 million annually, with about 150,000 dwellings running a 1 per cent risk of flooding each year.

While 2014 was one of Wimmera’s driest years in recorded history, residents still remember the floods. In January, Buloke Shire commemorated four years since the Avoca River at Charlton overflowed in 2011, and released a collection of stories documenting the Wimmera and Mallee’s biggest flood in 200 years, dubbed Stories of the Flood.

One of the better consequences of the devastating 2011 floods is that we’ve learnt from them – particularly when it comes to planning.

Flood plain manager Camille White, of the North Central Catchment Management Authority, says that in addition to advancing technology, data from the 2011 floods means knowledge surrounding overlays and flood plains is “constantly getting better and better”.

White encourages prospective buyers to contact their local catchment authority to obtain detailed information on how prone to flooding a piece of land is, and to ensure it’s fit to build on.

“Generally a house on a block is okay, as long as it’s not too much of a risk,” she says. “If the property floods it’s not the end of the world – you just need to make sure it isn’t running through your house.”

For Crystal and Rowan to build on their LSIO land, they would need to ensure not only that their structure has access during a flood, but that it won’t interfere with the path of the floodwater or the quality of water.

If the two houses on either side of their property are anything to go by, building on flood land is by no means an impossible dream.

“We’re on a flood zone – we’re actually on it – but as far as I can tell you can still build,” says Crystal. “It’s just got to do with how high off the ground you’ve got to be.”

Andrew Western, a hydrologist and deputy head of infrastructure engineering at the University of Melbourne, warns that “we should be careful about how we use our flood plains”.

“It’s important from a societal perspective as well as an individual perspective that we use land on our flood plains properly. We’ve got to do the planning properly, and then implement the planning properly.

“When individuals are making a decision to build on a flood plain, they are often implicitly putting an expectation on society in general to help them out, and in a situation where it’s very predictable that there will be floods – we just don’t know when.”

But without the option to risk a flood, younger buyers such as Crystal and Rowan would have even fewer options, even when they’re prepared to leave city limits and consider moving to regional areas. While 52 per cent of Australia’s land was reported as agricultural holdings in 2012-13, almost all of that land – 86 per cent – is used for “grazing activities” alone. With so much land in regional Victoria zoned for farming, where only one dwelling is permitted every 40 hectares, the possibility of subdividing, owning or rehabilitating this land is financially unfeasible for younger buyers.

“There’s a lot of land in Victoria, but they’re not letting you subdivide it,” says Eddie Dinning. “It’s pushing people to extremes – such as Rowan and Crystal. It’s pushing them to all this cheap land that’s pretty shitty from a planning point of view.”

Rowan says that even if the block is an “insane dream”, such an inexpensive property is likely to be the only realistic way for he and Crystal to gain the sense of agency they crave over their life and work. Even if this means subverting planning restrictions with temporary housing.

Melbourne architect Peter Charles says that it’s legal to keep what’s classified as a “temporary structure” on a property, without upsetting overlays or planning restrictions.

“If it’s on wheels, it might be classed as temporary. That’s a caravan or something that is allowed to be parked on the site. So there may be possibilities to do stuff like that.”

Driving back to Melbourne, clumps of identical housing lie squashed between acres of dried grazing land. Even billboards advertising the new developments look confused, with one sign simply reading, “WHAT”.

Perched in the middle of one of these wide, open spaces, the sole building is a tin shed crumpling in a heap of rust.

“The only reason that’s allowed to be there is because nobody has knocked it down,” Crystal says. “Yes, planning is incredibly important to stop people building idiot things that fall down and doing rampant environmental destruction, but when do these rules become utterly meaningless? Not everything’s farmland. When does it become a massive waste of resources, having this dead land that’s just patches of grass?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "Land locked". Subscribe here.

Megan Anderson
is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and online editor of Going Down Swinging.

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